I saw some incredible improv at the Edinburgh Fringe this year, packed tightly into just three days of action. What struck me most about the performers was how hard they committed to the show and the scenes they were in, and it paid off. Of course their acting skills, communication, humour and all round genius also helped.
Something often we see in people relatively new to improv is the fear. The fear to place your fate in a scene on yes and-ing. Maybe the other player won’t support your move, maybe you don’t have a clue what to say next, maybe you’re still concerned about looking like a dick. We try really hard to get rid of that last one – improv is play time for adults (and kids too, but we don’t mix well), and the daft games at the beginning where we all do silly things together helps to shake that off.
Comedy is a place for people to look ridiculous, but it’s always worth reflecting on whatever kind of comedy you enjoy that the joke only ever works when the actors commit to what they’re doing. If you do something half-arsedly it will look like crap. You can assume the most ludicrous character, say the most appalling things (thanks Martin) and do the lewdest darkest improv as long as you commit to it and don’t hold back. Equally it makes the fluffiest, gentlest humour funny too.
Shaking off those chains of self-consciousness can be hard. You know you’re still enchained when you catch yourself, and hesitate, snort at the absurdity of what you’ve just said and back away from it. Don’t. Grab it, seize the random nonsense that floods out of you, just remember to listen to what’s going on around you.
I saw Baby Wants Candy, who were fucking astonishing as always. In case you don’t know they do an hour long improvised musical based solely on a title suggested by the audience. It kicks the living crap out of any other musical improv you’ll ever see – that’s how high they set the bar. And it requires serious commitment. I’d first seen their show years ago and been in awe of it (Marilyn and I shared a venue with Al and Baby Wants Candy 13 years ago when they first did the Fringe).
So when we found out they also ran musical improv workshops I attended despite the raging fear in my stomach. I’m not a naturally musical person, I have a relentlessly mono-note singing voice and knowing I’m going to sing often makes me pretty nervous. I enjoy games like Should Have Sung because I can convince myself that I don’t know it’s coming! Jody and Al of BWC took us through an hour and a half of learning some song structures and I learned (or was reminded of) three really important things: you don’t need to be able to sing, you don’t need to be able to rhyme, you need to commit to the song, the emotion and the whole awesome showbiz razzamatazz of it (thanks Jody). When you put all that in it almost doesn’t matter what you’re singing (Jeez, try listening to the wank that Beyoncé and Rihanna put out) it still sounds pretty damn cool.
Commitment makes the show work. It makes scenes work. It makes people want to work with you and commitment to the show is everything – if you want to be good be there first, on time; push the show; push yourself and each other in at the deep end. Support your team mates, make it work. If you don’t want to commit – well, that’s shame… see ya.
Baby Wants Candy are hitting the London West End for the first time ever 7-10 September. If you haven’t seen them before you must. If you’ve seen them before you know you should. If you don’t you will regret it.